I could be wrong, but I’m almost 100% positive that the people who determine the schedule for the National Football League never consult the church calendar when they set up the playoff schedule. Every year, the Baptism of our Lord falls on Wild Card weekend. It’s a perfect match, if you ask me, because whether you sit in a church sanctuary or whether sit in front of the gridiron, lots of folks are thinking about expectations.
Some of those here today are full of expectations that a season will culminate in a Super Bowl appearance. They can barely contain their excitement or their anxiety. Trust me: I live with one of these people. I lived it last night in my family room, in fact. Every excruciating second. It’s almost like the long regular season behind us doesn’t really matter anymore. All the focus is on the future and, for better or worse, hopes of glory and dreams of honor are pinned on a particular player or coach. People are questioning in their hearts: is destiny calling for Kirk Cousins this year? Are the Packers washed out, or might they be the ones? These Wild Card games, you see, involve borderline candidates, teams who didn’t exactly dominate this season but who now have been given the chance to claim victory. In thirty years, only 6 of them have gone on to win the whole thing, but, oh, the expectations! With liturgical devotion, somewhere around 30 million people will be watching each game this weekend with them in mind.
And so the Baptism of Jesus is an uncanny backdrop for this tension in our popular culture. When Luke tells his version of this important event, he makes sure we know that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people are watching with pulsing expectation at another set of wild cards who appear by the River Jordan: John the Baptist and Jesus. They’ve assembled there because John has been preaching and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He’s kind of wild about it, too, calling people out for their sinful behavior and warning them of the wrath to come. He’s a long shot, perhaps, but the people wonder and question in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah. They’ve been waiting for centuries for the right person. The hopes and dreams of all of Israel, the people of God, are searching and waiting to rest on the right person. Is destiny calling him?
|"Baptism of Jesus" (Joachim Patinir)|
Messiah is a Hebrew word that means “anointed.” The Greek translation of Messiah is a word we use all the time but probably think of it as Jesus’ last name: Christ. Finding the Messiah was a big deal for God’s people because it meant that God’s kingdom was breaking in. It meant that God’s Spirit has selected a specific, special person who would inaugurate God’s reign of justice and peace. After centuries of oppression and dealing with foreign powers, after a long series of corrupt kings and priests, the people of Israel desperately wanted this to happen. They wanted The Anointed to show up. It’s all about those expectations.
John’s answer to those expectations might have been a bit of a let-down, but you can’t blame him for being clear. John is not the Anointed One, but, as he says, that person is coming. That person will be truly great, truly powerful. This Messiah they await will have the task of sifting through everything like a wheat farmer sifts through the harvest on the threshing room floor. He will lead in such a way that all of the chaff in our lives and in our world, the empty husks of meaninglessness, will be done away with. He will lead in a way that purifies people, much in the way that fire and powerful wind do away with things that are weak and impure.
John is pretty clear, though, he is not this leader, and unfortunately for John, Herod the ruler is even clearer. Luke tells us that pretty soon John the Baptist is arrested and locked in prison. Tough spot for any potential Messiah to be. However, apparently in the midst of those people John was preaching to out by the Jordan, the true Messiah had been baptized. Almost like a flashback in a movie, we find out that Jesus had, in fact, been anointed through this powerful experience where the heavens opened up. It’s not even clear from this story whether or not John the Baptist was there when all of this happened.
|"Baptism of Jesus" (Rosalind Hore)|
What is clear is that God is present. In the form of that dove that descends upon him, and in the sound of a voice from the sky, God’s Spirit and God’s presence make known that the people’s expectations are finally being fulfilled.
Historically-speaking, the baptism of Jesus is when the church year really begins. For centuries, this event kicked off the cycle that helped the church talk about and celebrate Jesus’ life and ministry. Things like Christmas and Advent were added later. The baptism, Jesus’ anointing was the primary focus. It is the first event in Jesus’ life that is attested in some way by all four gospel writers and is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus’ appearance in Judea in those waters of the River Jordan does something, means something, to God’s creation on a level that nothing beforehand had. In Jesus, God has found the leader that will assemble the people of God and purify the hearts of humankind. In Jesus, God has selected God’s very representative on earth. In fact, it is not just any representative, but God’s own Son, one whom God loves and with whom God is pleased. It is God’s way of saying that it is time to really pay attention to what this Jesus is going to do because God himself is present in him, revealing what God is like.
The funny thing is, I’m not sure Jesus always fulfills our expectations in this regard. We often want one thing from Jesus the Messiah and we get another. As a matter of fact, some of John the Baptist’s own expectations seem a little off-base when it comes to Jesus. He talks about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Messiah like it’s a consuming, powerful fire, but when it actually shows up, it’s a gentle dove. And any expectations we might have that God’s selection of Jesus will preserve and safeguard him or raise him up on a mighty pedestal come crashing down once we start to watch how his ministry plays out.
Jesus is claimed in his baptism, but not claimed and then set away like a king in a castle for a life apart from everyone else, protected from the dangers of the world. Jesus is chosen in his baptism, but not chosen for elite political or military service, surrounded by a well-connected entourage. Jesus is selected, but he is selected so that he may serve and suffer, to seek out the lost, and to save. These are typically not the expectations we always come to Anointed, Hoped-for leaders with, which is why the cross is always such a tragic shock.
It turns out John is right-on about one thing. Jesus will purify and cleanse, for sure, but it will do it because he is called “Beloved” and he has a fiery passion to love us all. A Messiah, a Savior, who dies for the very people who turn their back on him is precisely, however, the kind of Messiah we need.
|Coptic Orthodox baptism|
That we have been so claimed and chosen and loved by God in our baptisms and then given over to follow Jesus into the world is always demonstrated very vividly by this congregation’s longstanding tradition of walking newly baptized children and babies down the aisle after they’ve been anointed with the oil by the altar. At first it struck me that this little stroll was just a fun and practical way to show off a cute baby in a gown, like we’re at a baptismal fashion show and the aisle is a catwalk where we do our little turn. But I’ve come to realize the practice is more profound than that. When that baby is taken from the parents arms and walked down the aisle, we are witnessing and demonstrating what baptism does to all of us.
Our baptism, like Christ’s own, pushes us into the world. It places our lives, which are certainly claimed by grace, into service and mission. Each of us, with the blessing of the Spirit and all its gifts, brought through the waters by a God who has died for us, is sent right out into the expectations of a desperate, anxious world. Of course, we hand the child back to the parents at the end, but always with the hope that they, as primary caregivers to that child, model that this is the life of faith: God says “You are Mine. You will always be mine. But you belong in the world.”
Two weeks ago we baptized a three-year-old, Abbie. As we had discussed beforehand, we decided I would not carry her, but that she would hold me hand and walk side-by-side. When we finished and climbed the stairs to the chancel, we turned around to face the congregation and, of all things, she waved. She waved to the congregation! Speaking of expectations, that was something that caught us all off-guard!
When we leave this place each week, we encounter a world that is longing for the hope we’ve spoken of here. Wouldn’t it be powerful if the church, at the very least, waved back, as if the water were still dripping from our heads, confident that Jesus, the Messiah, the Hoped-for, is walking with us?
Come to think of it, don’t you show us, Epiphany, how to keep on walking? Haven’t you shown me, Epiphany, the church named for making Christ known, how you gather and feast here, grow here, babble in the pews here? Don’t you model so well—lost and found, desperate wild cards that you are—how to keep on walking right out there, held tightly the arms of the one who loves you?
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.